Hanumanh, 1604 7th St NW (Shaw); Rating 9.3; $$ (moderate)
There are singular works of art that cement the reputation of the artist who created them. DaVinci didn’t need to pick up a brush again after the Mona Lisa. Shakespeare could have hung it up after Hamlet. And Chef Seng Luangrath could have clapped her hands in the air like a blackjack dealer and walked away from the cutting board for good after she created her Lao crispy rice salad.
I’ll never forget my first encounter with Chef Seng’s masterwork. It was around 2011 at Bangkok Golden (now Padaek), a restaurant she’d just opened in a Falls Church strip mall. At the time, I didn’t know about Chef Seng or her amazing story: born in Laos, fleeing to Thailand during the Vietnam War, learning to cook from the women in her refugee camp; then, after coming to the US, opening Bangkok Golden at the age of forty. All I knew was that the foodie sites were lighting up with reports of a “secret” Laotian menu at an unassuming Thai restaurant and that the star of the show was something called Naem Khao, or crispy rice salad. To be honest, my initial reaction was that “crispy rice salad” didn’t sound all that promising, and if I was going to schlep to Seven Corners maybe I could do better at Eden Center. Thank goodness I took a flyer. The crispy rice salad was a revelation, not only for me but for the throngs who flocked to Bangkok Golden to try it. Within a few years, Chef Seng was able to open her Columbia Heights flagship, Thip Khao, and focus exclusively on Lao cooking. Then, just before the pandemic in 2019, Chef Seng and her son Bobby Pradachith added Hanumanh in Shaw.
You can get Chef Seng’s crispy rice salad at all three outposts and just about every table will have at least one order. I double over in pain when I see a table loaded down with perfectly delicious food but no rice salad. It’s like an Everest expedition that missed the final turn and you see them standing on an outcropping fifty yards below the summit enjoying the view. I don’t want to yuck anyone’s yum in that situation but I feel like I have a moral obligation to at least tell them what they’re missing.
So what actually goes into Chef Seng’s crispy rice salad? She starts with coconut rice, lightly crisped and a bit warm (take-out is never as good) and then tosses it with peanut, lime, scallion, cilantro, sour pork, mint, banana blossom, red onion, and I believe a sprinkling of pixie dust. It comes with lettuce leaves for wrapping. It’s crunchy, nutty, sweet, sour, porky, salty, spicy, herbaceous, warm, cool, and funky. If you’re someone who hates it when different types of food touch on your plate, it may not be for you. But if you’re like me and you’re constantly forking dibs and dabs from different sections of your plate looking for that perfect bite, all I can say is: welcome to the summit.
Oh, before I forget. A quick review of Hanumanh. It’s terrific. In fact, it may be my favorite of Chef Seng’s restaurants. It’s more laid back — both the setting and the food. The cooking is largely Laotian but Chef Seng seems more willing to draw on other influences, such as the Indian Massaman curry below.
But it’s not for everyone. The menu is much smaller than Thip Khao, so it’s more difficult to accommodate fussy eaters or different food preferences. And the surroundings are modest, with just a few tables lining the wall opposite the bar. Go to Thip Khao if you have a bigger group with a range of food needs or if you’re looking for a more upscale vibe. I do hear there’s a nice back patio in warmer months, which is where I’ll be holding office hours from 6-8 pm every evening from May through September.
Tapioca dumplings, preserved radish & peanut caramel, cilantro
Naem Khao — Crispy coconut rice salad, preserved pork sausage, banana blossom, mint, scallion, cilantro, onion
Roasted pork spare ribs, fish sauce, caramelized palm sugar, seasonal herb, pickles
Masaman Curry with beef brisket, potato, carrot, coconut
Sweet rice, black sesame seed, coconut cream, vanilla ice cream, fish sauce caramel
Hanumanh’s modest interior, essentially a long bar with two four-tops and some two-tops along the wall
The crispy rice salad led the parade but each dish was delicious. I’d take a bite of a dish when it arrived, shake my head and loudly exclaim “come on!” or “no way!” Which looking back must have seemed odd as a solo diner and probably explains why the bartender never asked me if I wanted a second glass of pinot noir.